Satire and Social Activism Come Alive in Images of Death

Illustrator and printmaker Eric Kenney pairs monochromatic images with text as a form of social activism

by Presented By Espolón
07 July 2016, 2:49pm

Gimmicks My True Love

Gimmicks My True Love

Although Eric Kenney studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, his formal education taught him to exchange his chosen field of study for the creative freedom that comes with being an illustrator. Today, the native Pennsylvanian makes screen prints on t-shirts, flags, and paper, with a signature two-tone method that usually involves a quirky image creatively offset with provocative text—almost always with a simple message that's hiding in plain sight.

In some ways, Kenney's artistic approach evokes that of Mexican engraver and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, who worked at the turn of the 19th century to make politically-charged pieces with a groundbreaking aesthetic that reflected and addressed the advancements of the Industrial Revolution. Both artists' works are technically cartoons, often with themes of death, and often critiquing the status quo through the use of satire. Stylistically, Posada and Kenney are similar as well, a comparison that's not lost on Kenney: "I'm always attracted to artists who can make powerful work with just one colour," Kenney tells The Creators Project. "If I can't get the message across with just one, then I'm doing something wrong." 

Atlantic City Flag

Kenney accepts that art originally became an instrument for social commentary because of its accessibility and appeal to a wide demographic, something that's only gained momentum with the passage of time. "It's essentially a weapon, and when wielded correctly, it can have pretty devastating results," he says. "I think it was used as a tool mainly because it was easy to share. You can convey a pretty complex idea with a simple picture."

Same Song Different Day

Even so, the sociopolitical approach to artmaking has undergone unprecedented change in the face of new media, with artists sharing their works on a scale like never before. "It's a good thing and a bad thing, because there's definitely a lot of really terrible stuff out there flooding the pond," Kenney says. Regardless of the quality, however, he believes the issues have remained relatively the same, and that's what's important. "There's still work conveying old ideas about death, love, oppression, politics, war, sex, drugs, and music," he explains, adding that he's noticed a recent increase in works that pair images with text as well. "They're usually one-liners; sometimes they feel like poetry, and I like that."

Let's Go Somewhere Else

Kenney's art is deeply imbued with themes of mortality, sexuality, isolation, transgression, and the loss of innocence—all informed by his own experiences from living and working in Philadelphia. Sometimes his art addresses personal matters like relationships, but often, it's about the human existential crisis in the face of death, which Kenney presents in an absurdist, almost surreal manner calling attention to the futility of suffering. "I like taking grim things and poking fun [at] them," he says. "I'm also definitely guilty of using it as a way to attack other people's ideas that I don't agree with."

Please Leave Me Alone Flag

Kenney believes that politics and social issues will continue to inspire and inform both artists and audiences, hopefully with some measure of humour and levity. "I think it will always be important, because I think we need things like satire and dark comedy to keep us sane—especially in these current times that are very crazy."

Through Being Tuff

Who Cares

Work Sucks

Your Love Is Not the Answer

Visit Eric Kenney’s website here.


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Eric Kenney